Second half of 17th century relative golden age for Irish Franciscans in Prague, says historian Jan Pařez

Photo: Karolinum publishing

The recently published The Irish Franciscans in Prague 1629–1786 offers a fascinating portrait of the college set up here by the order at a turbulent time in European history. As well as mapping the world of the friars, the book explores the killing of Albrecht of Valdštejn by Irish soldiers acting under orders from the emperor, which led to some becoming Bohemian noblemen – and supporters of the friary.

Photo: Karolinum publishing
The college was located on what is now Hybernská, or Hibernian St., after the Latin word for Ireland. Indeed, today’s Divadlo Hybernia theatre opposite Prague’s Municipal House was once part of the Franciscan College of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The book’s co-author, Jan Pařez of Strahov Library, told me many people are unaware of the historical connection.

“Today a lot of people in Prague have no idea about the origin [of the name]. When I ask even my friends who are not historians, they think that it’s some family name.

“Because after the college was abolished first there was a theatre. And then it was used, for example during my life, as an exhibition hall. It was called at the Hibernians, or U Hybernů.”

You say in the book that the Irish friars left their homeland because they were being repressed religiously, only when they came here to Catholic Bohemia to participate in something similar. Could you elaborate on that please?

“For the Irish Franciscans, Prague was something like a great victory of the most Catholic Hapsburgs.

“Why? Because Bohemia, the Kingdom of Bohemia on the lands of the Bohemian crown, is traditionally non-Catholic.

“They started their reformation here 100 years earlier than in Germany or in Northern Europe. So this was something like an ancient, original home of heresy.

“Bohemian people were able to face any attempts to recatholicise their land. It had been 100 years – and also after the Reformation, the local Reformation was modified thanks to Lutheranism and Calvinism, etc…

“So that’s why for Irish men this was a great victory. Because this old bastion of heresy was beaten by the Hapsburgs.

“That’s why they came here. They tried to arrange it with both of the main figures of the time, the archbishop of Prague, Archbishop Harrach, and with the emperor [Ferdinand II] in Vienna.

“They both agreed [to the Franciscans settling in Prague]. It was not so easy administratively, because this was the Bohemian and Moravian Province of Franciscans – it was not an Irish Franciscan province.”

A few years after the friars in 1634, Irish officers in the service of the emperor murdered Albrecht of Valdštejn – and this fact also had an influence on the Irish Franciscans, I believe?

“Yes. The thing was that in the service of the Hapsburgs a great number of – I don’t call them soldiers of fortune or mercenaries… because I think they did it for the Catholic faith mostly. But they were very particular, of course.

“These soldiers, which sometimes came from the Irish aristocracy, operated on the battlefields of Europe in the Thirty Years’ War, and so on.

“Because they were very evidently devoted to the Catholic cause I expect that is why a number of them were chosen to the assassins of Albrecht of Valdštejn.

“In the end they were rewarded for this. They got land property and also some money. And also as members of the Irish community they supported the Irish Franciscan friary or college here.”

And some of these Irish officers were later admitted to the Bohemian nobility, I was reading. People with names like Kavanagh, O’Brien, Maguire – and some of them were still here in 1918.

Jan Pařez,  photo: archive of Charles University
“Yes. I don’t think they came in the same wave. I think that they came separately or individually. Some got what is called incolatus – which is impossible to translate into English but was something like citizenship for the aristocracy here.”

Getting back to the Franciscans, what language were they speaking?

“German. Mostly German. And Latin, of course. When teaching they used Latin. When just communicating with people they used German.

“Bohemia was bilingual, though the majority were Czech-speaking. Also the aristocracy was German-speaking.

“What’s very surprising is that my colleague and I [the book’s coauthor Hedvika Kuchařová] never found any Irish text, either in the archives or in books as owner’s notes and so on.

“But we know that the local Irish Franciscans knew Irish, because one of them, whose name was Walsh, later wrote a grammar or dictionary of the Irish language.

“Some of them also undoubtedly attempted to learn Czech. In their library they had books of Czech lessons and German-Czech dictionaries.

“Don’t forget that the Irish Franciscan friars lived from alms and donations only. They weren’t allowed to process any land property, so they had to communicate with the local people. So I think [speaking Czech] was important for them.”

The Franciscan friars were here for about 150 years. Was there a golden age during that period?

“It’s a very complicated question. They came here in 1629, in the first half of the Thirty Years’ War. They were in a very bad position because they were very well received both by the emperor and the archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Harrach.

“But these two men had different views about recatholicisation. Cardinal Harrach wanted to do it here, with local powers, while the emperor desired the Jesuit order as the main recatholicisation agent.

“The Irish Franciscans were between them so the situation was complicated. But in the end Archbishop Harrach established a new seminary for Catholic priests; Bohemia before had been mostly non-Catholic, 85 percent non-Catholic, so there was a lack of Catholic clergy.

“The Irish Franciscan friars played a very important role in Archbishop Harrach’s plans, because he invited them to teach at the Archbishopric seminary.

“Moreover they gave lectures at other seminaries, for example the Norbertinum, which was a Premonstratensian, what was called home study college for Nobertines, and also for Cistercians, etc.

“So the situation was complicated a bit. Moreover, there was the Thirty Years’ War. In 1631 there was a Saxon occupation of Prague and the Irish Franciscans had to leave Prague.

“They came back and their first superior, Patrick Fleming, was killed during this. And so on.

“Thanks to the teaching at the Archbishopric seminary which I spoke about, the second half of the 17th century was undoubtedly the golden age.

“Because they were very respected and they were supported not only by the Irish nobility and soldiers, of course, but by some prominent aristocratic families like the Nostitz and Sternberg families and others.

“And that time, the second half of the 17th century, was a golden age because a great number of very good theologians worked here.”

Former Franciscan College now houses Divadlo Hybernia,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
To jump forward a century, why did these Irish friars eventually leave Prague?

“Because their college was abolished by Emperor Joseph II. He tried to reform the Catholic Church. He wanted to make it more loyal to the state than to the Vatican, so there was a split with the Vatican.

“And during these reforms, which were massive, he abolished a great number of monasteries, friaries and religious houses which were not useful or good enough to exist in his view.

“The political situation changed here in Prague and wasn’t good for the Irish college. It was important for the local state and there were new expectations. So in 1780s the college was dissolved.”